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Tunisians protest as Saied extends powers over judiciary



Thousands of Tunisians protested Sunday after President Kais Saied gave himself sweeping powers over the judiciary, his latest step in what opponents say is a slide toward autocracy.

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A decree published early this morning officially replaced a judicial watchdog it had promised to dissolve, giving it powers to block judicial appointments, fire judges and ban them from striking.

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Hours later, more than 2,000 protesters gathered in central Tunis, many waving large Tunisian flags and chanting slogans against the president.

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“The people want what you don’t want,” said one chant, echoing a slogan from the country’s revolt against dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s regime more than a decade ago: “The people want the regime to fall.” .

Some protesters carried signs that read “save our democracy!” and “don’t touch the judiciary!”

Saied’s decree came a week after he said he would dissolve the Superior Council of the Judiciary (CSM), sparking a national strike by judges who said the move would violate their independence.

Sunday’s ruling establishes a new “Temporary Supreme Council of the Judiciary” with 21 members, who must swear “by Almighty God to preserve the independence of the judiciary.” Nine are appointed directly by the president.

The rest, all the judges, are indirectly under his control in view of his new powers to remove “any judge who fails to carry out his professional duties.”

In addition, the decree prohibits “judges of all grades from striking or carrying out any organized collective action that may disrupt or delay the normal functioning of the courts.”

‘He is alone’
Saied last July sacked the government, suspended parliament and seized a variety of powers before moving to rule by decree, raising fears for what was seen as the only democracy to emerge from the Arab Spring uprisings.

At first, many Tunisians, tired of political parties seen as corrupt and self-serving, welcomed his moves, but his critics accuse him of turning the country back into autocracy.

Ezzeddine Hazgui of the “Citizens Against the Coup” movement pointed to the size of the demonstration and said resistance to the president was growing.

“On July 25, (Saied) had a lot of people behind him, now he is alone,” he said.

Saied, who has put fighting corruption at the center of his agenda, has insisted he has no intention of interfering with the judiciary, but human rights groups and world powers have criticized his decision.

Said Benarbia, regional director of the International Commission of Jurists, told AFP that the decree “consecrates the subordination of the judiciary to the executive.”

“If implemented, it would effectively end judicial independence and the separation of powers in Tunisia and, with it, the democratic experiment in the country,” he said.

“It gives the president broad powers to administer the careers of judges, in particular to suspend or remove them. This violates the most basic principles of the rule of law, the separation of powers and judicial independence.”

‘No legal basis’
The CSM, established in 2016, used to have the final say on judicial appointments.

He has firmly rejected the decrees that “violate the constitutional structure of the judiciary” and has said that any alternative “would have no legal basis.”

Saied had long accused the CSM of blocking politically sensitive investigations and being influenced by his nemesis, the Islamist-inspired Ennahdha party.

Ennahdha supporters were among the protesters in Tunisia on Sunday, some holding banners demanding the release of former justice minister Noureddine Bhiri and former interior ministry official Fathi Baldi.

Both were arrested by plainclothes police on December 31 and later charged with possible “terrorism” offences, and have been held largely incommunicado, according to human rights groups.

Bhiri, 63, who suffers from diabetes, high blood pressure and a heart condition, has been on a hunger strike since his arrest and was hospitalized shortly after his arrest.

Source Credit: TheGuardian

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